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But he’s no outside agitator: Pfleger is a political operator who counts Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a regular lunch partner and calls former Mayor Richard M. Daley “my friend and brother.” Officials pay their respects at St. Sabina, his Auburn-Gresham parish, when they need to be seen in the black community, and Pfleger does his part when they require the blessing of a clergyman at their press announcements.
So it’s notable that he’s joining the growing list of public figures calling for police to stop busting people for possessing pot.
“I think we’re wasting a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of resources on this marijuana thing,” Pfleger says.
“I’ve always been one who’s fought against it—I’m not one who believes in surrender. But at the same time I feel it’s become a mark on people’s records that hurts them in getting jobs or tuition help if they’re students.”
Pfleger says his community needs the help of police and prosecutors to deal with other problems. “I wish we were much tougher on people who kill children.”
He says he has shared these views with Emanuel’s office, police chief Garry McCarthy, and state’s attorney Anita Alvarez. Publicly, all have been unwilling to commit to policy changes.
As Ben Joravsky and I reported in this week's issue, legislation is pending before the City Council and Illinois house that would make low-level pot possession punishable with fines rather than jail time.
To Pfleger, that would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t address the grass gap—the fact that African-Americans are the ones who keep getting busted.
Pfleger recalls that when he served in the suburbs in the early 1970s, “Marijuana was just kind of ignored out there.”
“We are much tougher on crime in the black and Hispanic community than in the white community. And any kind of step back on this marijuana thing becomes being light on crime.”
The fastest way to confront the disparity is to leave possessors alone, he says, “unless someone’s caught with 500 pounds of it or they’re selling it to kids.”
Of course, this is a priest who is frequently moved to his own highly publicized attacks on vice—he’s led protests of tobacco ads, tried to shut down liquor stores, and paid prostitutes for the time to preach to them. Pfleger says he opposes marijuana legalization because he thinks it’s too great a temptation.
“Marijuana, alcohol, the lottery—all these things, in hopeless times, in the economy we’re in right now, people look to these things who can be preyed on,” he says. “I’m not saying I could never get to the place where I’d support legalization, but right now I don’t think society is ready for it.”
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